Sophie Huber

Nabokov and the Fate of Poses


Illustration by Mehveş Konuk

In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel Pnin, the title character, given a rare chance to pass judgment on his author, says of Nabokov: “I’ve always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.”

Between 1941 and 1948, as unofficial curator of the butterfly collection at Harvard, Nabokov painstakingly reorganized the specimens there to meet his own meticulous standards of elegance and order. While puttering around the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he developed a hypothesis of the migration of the Polyommatus blues, a genus of small blue butterflies with spotted wings. Noting great physical diversity within the genus and even within its individual species, Nabokov theorized that the Blues had migrated in five waves from Asia to the Americas during prehistoric times, giving rise to five genetically distinct lineages. Among his novel claims were that the migration occurred across an ancient land bridge over the Bering Strait and that the “Karner Blue” was its own species, rather than a subspecies of “Melissa Blues.”

The perceived audacity of these ideas, coming from a man with no formal scientific background, was redoubled by Nabokov’s unconventional approach to science writing: in a 1945 article for the entomological journal Psyche, he argued for his Bering Strait migration hypothesis by saying he “[found] it easier” to “give a friendly little push to some of the forms [of Blues] and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome” rather than entertain the widely-accepted Pacific-crossing hypothesis.

Apparently, Nabokov’s “friendly little push” was not enough to convince his peers, and the theory received little support during his lifetime. When, years after his death, Karner Blue DNA was first sequenced in 1998, genetic evidence didn’t seem to support his theory, either. One couldn’t be blamed for thinking that perhaps Nabokov should have stuck to literature after all.

* * *

If “Nabokov the naturalist” was a pose, Nabokov the prose stylist was a natural. His seventeen novels, written in immaculate Russian (the first nine) and then English (the last eight), attest to a supreme mastery of literary gesture. Erudite, verbally exacting, and chock-full of puns, puzzles, and allusions, the novels suggest an uncommon degree of authorial control and intention. If one thing seems constant in Nabokov’s œuvre, it is command: command of languages and language, command over plot, and commanding imposition of a refined, almost rhadamanthine aesthetic.

The glaring exception is Nabokov’s unfinished last novel—his eighteenth, The Original of Laura. The novel describes Philip Wild, a “comically fat” neurologist who is obsessed with the idea of erasing himself. Wild experiments with trance states and pills, trying desperately to shed material existence through the power of his mind. Readers never learn whether he succeeds: the text ends abruptly and vaguely, in its own version of the “envahissement of delicious dissolution” so longed-for by Wild—Nabokov’s notes simply peter out.

The working title of the novel was “Dying is Fun,” a grotesquely apt characterization of a sadly apt conceit. After producing 138 notecards’ worth of material for The Original of Laura, Nabokov died himself at 78.

* * *

This is the irony: that Nabokov wrote Wild trying to erase Wild in spite of Nabokov, and that Nabokov was thwarted in thwarting Wild’s self-erasure by Nabokov’s own erasure. One thinks of Escher’s Drawing Hands, except here we have two pencils, and at the end of each of those pencils is an eraser.

Whether or not he would have appreciated this one in his own life, Nabokov was generally fond of such tragic loops. Lolita, Laughter in the Dark, and The Enchanter, to name a few, center around characters with obsessions that are both destructive and regressive: fantastic attempts to restore the past that invariably lead to profound loss. This irony—that the search for what is lost yields only deeper loss—is central to Nabokov’s pathetic conception of time, and essential in understanding the closely-related functions of exile, memory, and nostalgia in his work. Time and its casualties are inescapable; attempting to resist or subvert time leads Nabokov’s characters to madness, or else forces whole novels into ontological paradox (i.a. The Eye, The Gift).

With lives, even fictional ones, the inevitability of time’s passing implies the inevitability of death. And there—in death—lies nature’s artistic authority: finally calling the shots, nature picks up where the human artist left off.

* * *

This situation of nature’s imitating and thwarting art is further complicated by the strange circumstances of the novel’s publication. On his deathbed, Nabokov asked his wife and son to destroy the manuscript of The Original of Laura. Whether his son Dmitri was ethically justified in publishing it instead is hard to say; what is clear is that Nabokov père had, and continues to have, no choice in the matter.

Dmitri Nabokov has commented that the character Philip Wild only sought to commit a “reversible suicide,” whereby he could return to life after erasing himself. Such brash plans do not tend to succeed in the real world, as Nabokov the naturalist would surely have known. But was Nabokov the artist seeking exactly that sort of artist’s immortality for his manuscript? Did he in fact hope The Original of Laura would be published despite his instructions? As Dmitri has noted in his own defense, Nabokov’s wife, Véra, once rescued the pages of Lolita from an incinerator where Nabokov was about to burn them, and history has justified her in doing so. So was Nabokov’s last request a “friendly little push” into the naturalist’s incinerator—or was it an artist’s last “friendly little push” back at death?

* * *

This is the other irony: that while nature had the last laugh when it came to Nabokov’s artistic legacy, his scientific legacy was marked by a generous sprinkling of poetic justice. In 1977, Nabokov died. In 2009, The Original of Laura was published just as he left it: as a farrago of 138 pencil-marked notecards, awkwardly reproduced in hardcover (Knopf; $35). On January 26, 2011, a study was published by Pierce et. al. which supported Nabokov’s original hypothesis on the migration of the Polyommatus blues. Next-generation DNA sequencing stunningly confirmed that “he got every one right” regarding five waves of butterflies which indeed flew across the Bering Strait from Asia over the last eleven million years. Nabokov’s “friendly little push” had panned out.

Otherwise-astute Pnin was mistaken: however whimsical its style, Nabokov’s scientific work was no pose. In fact, it proved to be one of the hardiest parts of his legacy, as augured in Nabokov’s own poem “A Discovery” (1941):

“[…] I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer – and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.”

More fitting than Pnin’s in this case may be the words of Pale Fire’s John Shade, who speculates, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” The “great surprise” of Nabokov’s posthumous legacy was that all expectations were reversed: the notion of his belletristic invulnerability was shaken, while his scientific audacity was unexpectedly vindicated. His death revealed the fallibility and humanity behind what was truly his great pose, his literature—and it confirmed that his entomology was not a pose at all.

Artists spend their lives preparing for death, but they never prepare sufficiently. Nabokov, for all his genius, was no exception: The Original of Laura reveals, by its very imperfection, the limits of Nabokov’s control over his art. And while Nabokov the naturalist finally got his due in death, a better known Nabokov—Nabokov the natural, Nabokov the master jester—failed, at last, to perfect—what? Only this: the final, most natural gesture.

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